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From Light to Likeness


ABOVE & BELOW  Silhouettes of the children of James and Jane Rundlet, by William King, c. 1810.

In the days before photography, silhouettes were an easy way to capture a person's likeness, especially for those who could not afford to have their portraits painted. Today, these silhouettes are much prized, and they are often the only records we have of how someone looked.

Early silhouettes were painted on glass or ivory. In the eighteenth century, the hollow-cut method became popular. In this method, a shape is cut out of white paper, and the remaining outline is then mounted on a black background. Artisans known as "scissor cutters" or "shade makers" traveled through the countryside peddling their portrait-cutting skills door-to-door. Such portraits came to be called "silhouettes" after Etienne de Silhouette, a finance minister under King Louis XV of France, who was forced out of office in 1759 because of his unpopular economic policies. His name became associated with quick sketches, perhaps due to the many graffiti ridiculing him that appeared in the streets at the time. Some people say that after he retired to his country estate, he too enjoyed the popular pastime of cutting likenesses out of paper.

Here's how you can make a silhouette.


You will need a pencil, scissors, glue, both black and white construction paper, masking tape, and a bright flashlight, or any strong light source that can be focused in one direction. You will need a dark room in which to work, so it is best to wait until night.


1. First, attach the white paper to the wall with masking tape. Seat the person whose silhouette you are making in a chair a foot or two in front of the wall, facing sideways. Then, from across the room, shine the light on the person's profile, so that it casts a shadow on the white paper. (You will need someone to hold the flashlight for you.) The profile should fall in the center of the paper and should not take up more than half the sheet.

2. Trace the outline of the sitter's head on the paper with your pencil. Remove the paper from the wall and carefully cut out the shape of the head. Remember that the outside of the paper is what you will keep, so cut carefully. It will be easier to cut well inside the outline of the profile first and then use nail scissors to trim exactly along the line you traced.

3. Glue the cut white paper over the black paper to finish the likeness. You can take turns sitting in the chair, tracing the outline, and holding the flashlight, so that each of you ends up with a silhouette of your own.

-Kathleen Corcoran
Education Program Coordinator

From Light to Likeness